2020 proves fatal on Georgia highways

One person was killed in July after a crash in Clayton County. Georgia traffic fatalities have already surpassed last year's total, with several days left in 2020. (FILE PHOTO BY JOHN SPINK/AJC)
One person was killed in July after a crash in Clayton County. Georgia traffic fatalities have already surpassed last year's total, with several days left in 2020. (FILE PHOTO BY JOHN SPINK/AJC)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Despite less traffic, more people have died on state highways this year

Looking for one more reason to hate 2020? With a few days left in the year, far more people have already died on Georgia highways than died last year.

As of Tuesday morning, 1,600 people had died in traffic crashes in Georgia, compared to 1,502 people in all of 2019. But this year’s final death toll may be even worse – it can take up to three months to tally all the state’s traffic deaths as reports filter in from local police departments.

The spike in traffic deaths comes despite a substantial decrease in traffic brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Traffic volumes on metro Atlanta highways remain about 10 percent below normal.

“It’s really discouraging,” said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, which tracks traffic fatalities. “We’d been heading in the right direction for so long.”

This year’s tally reverses what had been a gradual decline in traffic fatalities, which peaked at 1,556 in 2016. At the time, safety advocates said distracted driving – including texting and otherwise messing with cell phones – was a key factor.

Two years ago the General Assembly prohibited drivers from handling electronic devices while driving, which experts said contributed to the recent decline in traffic fatalities. And with traffic down substantially amid the pandemic, safety advocates hoped for further gains.

Instead, GDOT noticed traffic fatalities were rising, and trend has not let up. Most recently, the Georgia State Patrol reported that 20 people died in fatal crashes over the Christmas holiday weekend.

Police say this year’s lighter traffic has tempted many drivers to speed – leading to more severe consequences when they crash. Though it will be months before GDOT can conduct a full analysis, Dale said preliminary data show excessive speed is likely just one factor in rising fatalities. A lack of seat belts, impaired driving and other factors also have played a role.

“Right now, it looks like a bunch of really bad decisions across the board by drivers,” she said.

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